The Politician and the Writer

           The politician and the writer agree to meet, for the first time in four years, both penciling it in their respective calendars as just “lunch.” The writer suggests Mariposa at Neiman Marcus because he loves their signature popover rolls and the politician reluctantly agrees despite the high probability the two of them will be seen together by someone she knows.
           He rushes to the restaurant only to arrive two minutes before their scheduled time, pacing near the front desk until he notices the politician is already seated. She doesn’t wave when he sees her and instead gives a strained smile, as if to signify her lack of enthusiasm. Making his way to the table, the writer mentally practices how to execute a polite hug. He tries to remember if the politician usually leans left or right in an embrace, however his energy is wasted when she doesn’t budge from her seat when the writer greets her.
           “Oh, hi,” she answers, surprised to see him standing in front of her. She sounds mildly irritated, as if she were being interrupted from something more important than stirring her coffee.
           “Were you waiting long?” the writer asks. “I didn’t realize you were here already."
           She sips her coffee slowly to avoid conversation. “Nope. Just got here.” She feels the gaze of an older man nearby wearing an aloha shirt and slacks. She wonders if he recognizes her. The politician quickly surveys the area as the writer seats himself, doing a mental inventory of familiar and unfamiliar faces. When the writer accidentally bumps his arm against the table, the man looks up curiously in their direction. This is mostly because he gets distracted by any kind of movement around him and soon he returns to his own conversation. The politician decides to move the man into her unfamiliar column, but leaves a mental asterisk next to his face.
           The writer fumbles with the menu. “Do you know what you’re going to order?”
           “Oh, I’m fine with my coffee,” the politician answers flatly. “I ate already.”
           He tries to hide his irritation that she’s already eaten despite their plans today. He pretends to scan the appetizers section, using it as an opportunity to get a better look at the politician. Her hair is pulled into a haphazard ponytail, and her floral print blouse, for better or worse, makes her look notably older than she really is.
           The politician feels the writer’s eyes on her, so she instead concentrates on how she can swirl her coffee into a tiny whirlpool without spilling over the sides of her mug. She doesn’t know why she said she ate already. She had her regular unexciting bowl of instant oatmeal for breakfast, but that was nearly six hours earlier and now her stomach is knotting up in anxiety and hunger. She considers opening the menu to order something, but feels strangely paralyzed knowing the writer is watching her. She feels like he’s searching for chinks in her armor and she won’t allow him the upper-hand. She doesn’t want him to reach for the check at the end of the meal, like she knows he will. She doesn’t want to feel like she owes him anything, even an $18 sashimi salad.
           The writer notices the politician tensing up, but doesn’t know why. He tries to push the conversation along, “So how have you been? Busy?”
           “Yeah, pretty busy. We’re getting ready for campaign season,” she explains. “There have been a lot of long nights at the Capitol and actually, I need to get going in about 30 minutes. I have to head back and take care of some stuff.”
           “Wow, you sound like a real politician,” he smiles. He's met with a vacant stare.
           “And you? Have you written anything lately?” she asks.
           “A few things,” he answers. “ Right now I’m working on my final edits for a short story I’m getting published.”
           As the writer outlines the premise of his piece, a memory of him floods the politician's mind: the image of them in their first apartment working side by side at their desks. She remembers looking over at him from her mountain of textbooks and how he always said “I love you” whenever he finished writing for the night. She neatly folds up this thought and tucks it away by focusing instead on how much rounder his face has gotten since she last saw him. She wonders if this means he’s happier now.
           The waitress flips open her notepad at the table and smiles at them. “Ready? What can I get you?” she asks.
           “I’ll have the striploin, please. Medium well. Oh, and lots of those popovers. If I could I’d probably order popovers with a side of striploin instead, ” he laughs.
           “Let me tell you a secret. This is totally my favorite shift because when it’s slow, I just sit in the back and eat those things. Don’t worry,” the waitress winks. “I’ve got you covered. And for you, miss?”
           The politician had forgotten how the writer’s friendly, almost flirtatious nature, always puts strangers at ease. She can’t understand why his personality now simultaneously charms and irritates her. “Just more coffee, please.”
           Before they were defined by their professions, they were known simply as Ethan and Katelyn. They met during their first year in college and fell in love, navigating the next seven years together like invincible teenagers. If asked now, neither of them can remember who ended it and don't like talking about it.
           The waitress returns with a basket of popovers and a small dish of their specialty mango-butter. “I love this butter,” the writer says as he generously slathers up his roll.
           “I know,” the politician finally smiles. She remembers they celebrated their first anniversary here, and briefly, they’re both reminiscing about the same memory.
           The food arrives soon after and the writer unfolds his napkin on his lap, reaching for his silverware. Out of habit, he offers, “Do you want to try my steak? I can cut you a piece.” He opens his hand, signaling her to pass him the small plate sitting near her untouched silverware.
           She waves no, pointing down at her coffee. “I’m good, thanks.”
           “Can I ask you a question?” he asks. “Why did you agree to see me today? I know you’re busy and I’m not high on your priority list anymore.”
           The politician, without thinking, reassures him, “No, no, you are.” She isn’t sure if she means it, but it’s too late to take it back.
           He cringes at her transparent response. “ But why did you decide to meet me?”
           “Because you’re an old friend.” She’s not sure why she said that and soon regrets it when she recognizes the hurt all over the writer’s face. She doesn’t mean to wound him, but sitting here with him reminds her of something he destroyed and it still hurts her. He wonders how many times she’s used the term “old friend” to describe past lovers or if that’s what he’s been reduced to in her memory. He searches her face for any remnant of their past, any memory left behind, but she looks so unfamiliar to him now.
           During their sophomore year he remembers buying her a small journal, identical to his own, to document their adventures together. She collected ticket stubs and printed out poetry that reminded her of him, scotch-taping it neatly to its pages. His journal was filled with prose, poetry and short stories strung together with her name. Every so often, they’d trade journals and read together, laughing at how each remembered the same event just a bit differently than the other. Back then their lives fit together very neatly, page for page.
           The writer picks up the check as soon as the waitress sets it down. He thanks her for the extra popovers and makes small talk while writing out the tip. Watching him interact with the woman, the politician can’t remember why she once loved the writer so much. She recognizes how important he used to be to her, but feels very disconnected to it, as if his significance is to someone else.
           They walk together to exit the restaurant, both thanking the hostesses at the front desk. The politician checks her watch. “I have to go,” she says. “Thank you for the coffee.”
           “Yeah, of course,” he answers. “It’s the least I could do. I mean, originally I wanted to buy you lunch today.” He doesn’t mean for it to sound rude, but the politician thinks he’s being passive aggressive with that deflated look on his face.
           “I hope I see you around,” she says as she turns to leave. She feels bad because it sounds insincere, but she doesn’t know how to comfort him anymore.
           “Take care of yourself,” he calls out to her. He stands there and watches as the politician disappears into the crowd. He’s surprised at how long it takes him to locate her again, but then he recognizes the familiar bend of her ponytail as she walks away.

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